A professor surveyed the classroom of eager students and asked us, “How many of you are here because of a Free the Children trip?” Hands shot up, mine alongside them.
I was 18 years old, and it was the first week of my undergraduate degree in international development. Years of involvement with the WE Movement had taught me and thousands of similarly mobilized youth that all it would take to change the world was volunteerism and good intentions.
At the time, WE Charity, formerly known as Free the Children, and its sister company, the for-profit social enterprise Me to We, had been seen as a leader in Canada’s youth engagement sector. Few stopped to question whether their international programming lived up to expectations in contributing to ethical, sustainable change.
That changed in recent weeks. News broke about a questionable federal government contract, followed by an ethics investigation into speaking fees paid to members of the Trudeau family. Former WE employees shared accounts of alleged mistreatment of staff, racism within the organization and fraud in international operations.
As a former program participant whose perspective has since been changed by critical education and experience, I was relieved to see that the world is taking a closer look at the WE movement. Yet, even if WE were to transform its contracts, conditions and culture, I believe there would still be a deeper underlying issue at hand.
WE partners with 18,000 schools and has engaged a million youth to date in their massive WE Day events. Within their expansive programming, you’ll find consistent encouragement to participate in international volunteer trips through Me to We.
In 2012, I was in Rajasthan, India alongside a group of other keen young Canadians, ready to change the world with Me To We. Although our group was sponsored by a corporation, the three-week trip would have normally cost around $5,000 per participant.
We were told that we’d be contributing to the building of a school in a rural community. In reality, we spent the first week moving a pile of bricks from one side of the work site to the other, the second week moving them back, and the third week painting some walls the wrong colour. We were given busywork — and fair enough. I wouldn’t trust unskilled teenagers to play a key role in building schools in my community, either.
At one point on our trip, we were brought to the house of a local woman to assist with home repairs. She smiled at us warily as we smoothed mud over the already well-maintained walls of her house. This performative task was clearly more for our own experience than it was for the benefit of local stakeholders.
This work was continually framed by our Me To We facilitators as integral to changing the world.
I’m not alone in feeling that a voluntourism experience fell short of its intended impact. Volunteers with other organizations have shared stories of messing up a construction project so badly that local workers had to redo it each night, schools being built without any sustainability plans, and feeling that they actually slowed down progress on local projects with their lack of skills and knowledge.
Some may argue that the benefit of voluntourism lies in the perspective change of the volunteers, but I question why we need to become a tourist to the poverty of others to confront our own privilege.
Even if my group had taken on more intensive work, this trip still would have contributed much more to our own personal development as volunteers than it would have to community change. Local tradespeople could carry out construction for a fraction of the cost of our trip’s price. Some may argue that the benefit of voluntourism lies in the perspective change of the volunteers, but I question why we need to become a tourist to the poverty of others to confront our own privilege.
A simplistic model
When I came home from India, Me to We seemed less concerned with me going forward and pursuing more impactful change than they were in getting me to spend more money. I was soon emailed about purchasing another volunteer trip. This type of encouragement seems to work, as I travelled to India with an individual who had been on four Me to We trips.
Although Me to We states that, “Engaging directly with partner communities and projects is far more impactful than just giving money,” I believe that much more impact could have been created by directly donating the money spent on trip costs to local community organizations who understand their own issues and can propose their own solutions.
The proceeds from Me to We in part go to supporting WE Charity, which runs the program WE Villages. This development model centres around providing the five pillars of water, education, health, food security and opportunity.
The danger of breaking development down into a simplistic model is that it can perpetuate stereotypes about developing countries as rural, agrarian and poor, and give the impression that with simple solutions, such as building a school, a community can sustainably lift itself out of poverty. It fails to delve into the nuances and barriers caused by colonialism, governance structures, conflict, climate change and a complex global economic system, or acknowledge constantly evolving urban development, innovation and social change.
In my experience, WE does not do enough to show their largely privileged program participants the role that Western countries have played in causing global poverty (ahem, colonialism) and continuing to benefit from it. Following my Me to We trip, I went into my undergraduate degree thinking that I would go forward to help save the world, perpetuating a problematic concept of white saviourism. I had to learn to step back and acknowledge that supporting social change isn’t about centring ourselves in the process.
We have a problem here, and it’s not just with WE. It’s with how our society chooses to selectively view and contribute to local and global issues. If you are turning away from Black Lives Matter, Indigenous sovereignty, poverty and homelessness in Canada, but are paying thousands of dollars to go on an international volunteer trip, the outcomes may be more self-serving than impactful.
I get it because I’ve done it — it’s easier to go on an exotic trip where you do a bit of work, tour around, and then get to upload your pictures to social media. It’s easier to view the problems of others as simpler than our own. But easy isn’t intentional, or impactful, or ethical, or right. Let’s do the harder work to untangle the deeper, systemic issues at play. And unless there are some major organizational changes, we will be doing it without WE.
Note: HuffPost’s previous owner, AOL, sponsored and participated in WE Charity events and Free The Children trips.